Whose heart was not warmed by the applause Eric Abidal received when he started warming up on the sidelines in the 55th minute? Whose heart did not jump with joy when he finally got on a quarter of an hour later? Whose heart did not pause with awe at the grace with which he plucked his first ball from the sky?
This review should be about one man. I feel like putting up a second post with ten pictures of Abidal on the pitch and do the same for every single match he plays this season. Or maybe I should just link to the utter awesomeness that apparently passes as previews on this website and get on with the match report.
With the king of the dancefloor, Lionel Messi, unable to attend his homecoming, party boy Tito sent out invitations to Pinto, Montoya, Piqué, Bartra, Dani Alves, Song, Thiago, Iniesta, Tello, Cesc and Alexis. Their mission? To rock the Camp Nou! Mallorca knew it was our show and were kind enough to provide us with eleven players as decoration.
From the get-go you could tell they were serious. Nobody standing still to watch Leo show off his moves meant that everybody got into the groove. Iniesta didn’t miss a beat and provided Tello with a would-be assist in the opening minutes, had his shot not lacked strength and precision. Thiago almost did likewise, using that Brazilian half of his right foot (the outside) to set up the Maneater again, but this time the defense was quick to close down the space and shut down the goal opportunity.
A pattern was quickly established during those first 15 minutes. Barça attacked with the ball and gave their opponents little to no respite when we ceded possession, as we forced them into making mistakes and picked off their passes with ease.
Iniesta was majestical both offensively, avoiding defenders to probe their fortress with arrow-like passes, and defensively, slashing down possible attacks like the ruler of an army. Hell, even Tello had fun running after the ball when he lost it. The few times Mallorca did get through there was always Song, whose tackles put “no” in the heart of any opponent that might get overly ambitious.
In the meantime Cesc Fàbregas filled in for the best football player of the world as our false nine, a position he played with admirable intelligence, cleverly moving in between the lines and distributing the ball within one or two touches.
The rest of the first half belonged to the Men of the Match, Cesc and Alexis.
First our number 4 found the Chilean for a quick one-two that resulted in the first goal of the evening. Sanchez’s pass was simply beautiful, and if up until then he had been actively involved but very inefficient**, over the next half hour he more than proved his worth.
Goal number two came immediately after. Lexus won a header from Bartra’s long ball, immediately received the ball back from Dani Alves and passed it to the Brain in the middle of the park. Ghostface found Maneater on the left flank, who blasted past his defender to play a low cross across the box that got blocked before it made its way to Fàbregas. Montoya and Iniesta recycled the ball right back to our nominal striker and Cesc tried the keeper with a low hard shot. Dudu Aouate*** could not hold on to the ball and Sanchez put the rebound in the net for our second goal.
Perhaps as a result of not having Messi on the pitch, our play became a lot more vertical during this period the game, as we repeatedly tried to open up on the flanks with long balls to Tello or Dani Alves. We did give up a couple of shots on our end, however, and we were lucky to escape a penalty when Alcântara handled the ball, although it would have been a very harsh call indeed.
Ironically it was the momentary return of tiki taka that led to our third goal. Cesc combined with Iniesta for some short one-time passes in the midfield. He then moved the ball forward to Thiago, who gave it back, and moved it forward to Niño Maravillo, who provided the final pass. Score three – zero, after the kind of goal that was surprisingly similar to the ones we are used to seeing from the Flea.
Be that as it may, the Great Impersonator immediately returned the favor to his assist maker, who controlled the deep pass with his right and finished with his left. Whose heart did not smile when after celebrating with his teammates on the pitch he ran to the sideline to hug none other than Eric Abidal?
Up by four into the break with seemingly nothing left to play for. All too often games that are decided in the first half turn extremely boring in the second, and understandably so. This was not one of those games, as we started where we left off when Cesc scored a peach of a goal to complete both the manita as well as his first ever hat-trick as a professional footballer.
Five minutes later Jonathan Dos Santos came on for Iniesta. JDS gets a lot of flack round these here parts (and elsewhere) or refusing to go on loan and play more minutes elsewhere. I understand the criticism but do not fully share it. The boy simply wants to succeed at the club of his dreams more than anything else, even if he doesn’t have a chance in hell at doing so. He was “rewarded” with forty minutes on the pitch – forty minutes that he furthermore shared with his ex-blaugrana brother, Giovanni. While no Iniesta, he played pretty well and I hope he will get at a start in one of the last games of the season.
Next came on Gerard Deulofeu, the prospect judged most ready to make the jump to the first team. I don’t watch our second team myself, but if the stories are to be believed he has outgrown Barça B. A quick look at youtube compilation videos certainly seem to support that particular theory, but in my opinion he has a long way to go to be worthy of a place in our squad.
Doubtlessly gifted, he too often tries to take on one or more defenders by himself with his dribbles. Whereas this might work well for him in the second division, I have yet to see him get past his marker in a Liga game. He will definitely have a lot of growing up to do when he gets promoted next season. Let’s hope for the best!
The final substitution was of course the one we had all been waiting for. After 402 days of not playing, his winning goal at the Bernabeu in January 2012 proving to be one of our last (and lasting) memories of the King, Eric Abidal finally made his way back on the pitch to represent the club we all love.
Better men than myself have written about what his return to the game means to all of us. I will only add that every time I saw him on the ball I had one certainty: we can win football games and we can lose football games…
But Eric’s recovery is our true victory.
“I said to Alexis before the game: ‘You’ll score today, don’t forget me! I knew it was his day”
Eric Sylvain Abidal
*as tweeted by Kxevin @kevvwill
**He lost the ball a lot, but I didn’t mind that much. I was happy to see him being an active part of the attack and try to make things happen. Sometimes he will try the wrong thing, but he is talented enough to do just that: make things happen
***winner of the Khedira look-alike contest